A Tale of Two Cities: Gentrification in France

Marseille and Nice are geographically similar and separated by a mere 200 kilometers. Dry chaparral vegetation gives way to sharp rocky cliffs and the cobalt blue Mediterranean.  Culturally however these two cities are quite distinct. Marseille is a bustling and diverse port city. It has a distinctive Mediterranean flare, and despite being the oldest city in France, seems less “French”. Ethnically the city is estimated to be between 25 and 40 percent Muslim (France does not keep official records on religion and it is a crime to do so). In recent years money has poured into the city in attempt to modernize the port area. This money is used for economic redevelopment and to more strongly tie the city with France.

Nice is best described by its unofficial anthem Nice la Belle or “Nice the Beautiful.” Unlike Marseille there is very little trash or graffiti on the streets. The main squares are filled with tourists and look culturally French. Designer chain stores such as Armani and H&M make up most of the retail. Expensive restaurants line streets on one side and artists sell their work on the other. The expansive stone beach and boardwalk draw tourists from the city to the Mediterranean’s edge. These amenities help make Nice the very embodiment of French bourgeois. Ethnically the city appears noticeably less diverse than Marseille. Since the cost of living and everyday expenses are much greater, low-income residents are priced out of these areas.

Despite these major differences the two cities do share some similarities. The “redeveloped” areas of Marseille are noticeably more “French” in appearance and design. Designer chain stores line these areas and the lone Starbucks in Marseille is found here. These “redeveloped” areas also have large billboards displaying artistic renderings of the future Marseille. The same billboards cover the now vacant public housing. This public housing was supposedly cleared for just the construction phase, but completion dates of 2010 on the billboards indicate different priorities. Many immigrants of Maghreb or Comorian descent previously lived close to the port in these areas and this redevelopment was supposedly for them. Why then does the public housing still sit unfinished and vacant while commercial portions remain open?

Much of the redevelopment process in Marseille involves making the city more “French” and drawing it closer to France. Why then does this appear to be synonymous with gentrifying low-income immigrants? Perhaps France is not quite the republican color-blind society it claims. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy used the word “racaille” (scum) to describe young ethnic protestors. These underlying ethnic tensions are not discussed or mentioned in France very much, but have a major effect on the immigrant population. Immigrants’ upward social mobility is hindered by prejudicial hiring practices where a non-French name on a resume can doom an applicant. They are then further marginalized by these redevelopment projects that often displace them from their homes and communities.

Marseille’s redevelopment is creating two cities. One city is the Marseille featured on National Geographic’s cover. In it the city is a described as a Mediterranean melting pot with unique social structures. These structures kept Marseille (an extremely diverse and large city) from burning in 2005 when the rest of France’s ethnic youth was rioting. The other city is the more “French” version that wants Marseille to essentially become a larger Nice. This city is responsible for a half vacant skyscraper that blights the skyline. In it business and commerce displace public housing from the city center. This second city is threatening to tear down some of the social structures that make Marseille unique. If redevelopment continues creating this second city Marseille may lose its unique cultural and social distinctions. Today people who live in the city pride themselves as being from Marseille, but in the future this sense of belonging may no longer exist.

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Corporate and Social Responibility

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is defined as environmentally friendly actions not required by law, the private provision of public goods, or voluntarily internalizing externalities.  Examples of this include Walmart improving its trucking fleet’s fuel efficiency above CAFE standards, Google’s free books program, or Carbon Capture and Storage by American coal plants.

CSR is often viewed as an alternative to more “intrusive” government regulation. Many multinational companies operate similarly to nation-states today, and thus can be powerful players on the international scene. Additionally CSR circumvents the bureaucracy of government and does not need international cooperation. Large companies can use their market share to influence the behavior of many smaller producers. The video below by Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Foundation describes this in greater detail.

I think the video was particularly effective in my presentation. The class was shown a clip of it from 9:08-12:15, so it would grab their attention. I tried to give a basic overview of CSR along with its advantages and incentives. My opinion and presentation of CSR may have been overly optimistic though. In many cases government regulation will still be necessary or more effective in pursuing sustainable development. According to Milton Friedman CSR is merely any act that is unprofitable for the company, and is unlikely to be pursued without ulterior motives. Therefore CSR may not be the silver bullet it appears.

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Initial Impressions

Upon arrival at the Zurich airport I immediately noticed the orderly structure that contrasted sharply with the chaos of New York’s JFK Airport. The train shuttle to baggage claim greeted me with bucolic sounds reflecting the Swiss-German culture of the region. After departing the airport, the train navigated me through the Swiss Alps. Sharp peaks poked through thick morning fog to reveal swollen spring streams carving waterfalls into the mountainside. A landslide covering the tracks created a detour via a bus filled with bubbly Swiss schoolchildren. Once back on the train I began to notice the architecture transition from German to Italian as I continued south. The vegetation also evolved from dense coniferous forests to a more Mediterranean climate featuring palm and fruit trees in Tichino. Eventually I arrived in Riva San Vitale, and walked along the Via dell’Indipendenza by Lake Lugano to arrive at the wonderful Villa Maderni.

The sleepy town of Riva San Vitale overlooks the southern end of Lake Lugano. Nestled between Monte Generoso to the East and Monte San Giorgio to the West, the town has a slow pace. Mopeds and bikes share the streets with high end sports cars. My place of residence, the Villa Maderni, is more than 200 years old and overlooks the Baptistry S. Giovanni. The Baptistry dates back to the time of the Romans and has been remodeled many times since then. Bells on the church ring every hour and echo throughout the Villa.

The Villa itself is quite large. It has three levels, all of which feature high ceilings. Many of the ceilings in its rooms have wonderful paintings. Tile on the main and second levels is original and cannot be replicated today. Our main classroom is on the second level just outside my bedroom. This is quite convenient if one gets a late start to the morning, as the classroom is merely a few steps away. I could not imagine a more picturesque residence to study.

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